It was the mother of all drifts. Forty feet behind me, the back of Iowa City Transit bus #13 was coming around fast, threatening to wipe out a block’s worth of cars parked across the street. By the time I caught the first slide, I had overcompensated: now the rear was hanging out the other side. My arms were a whirling dervish on the giant steering wheel, flying back and forth, until the bus straightened out. No need to stop for coffee; I was wide awake on a triple-shot of adrenaline.
Iowa City Transit #13 – the very bus I was driving that icy morning image: bustalk
I was always on the lookout for creative ways to entertain myself on pre-dawn (empty) bus runs, but this one totally caught me off-guard. At the north end of Clinton street, midway through the corner unto Church, the pavement changed from asphalt to smooth old brick cobblestones. As I exited the corner, I floored it, as always. An imperceptibly-thin sheen of frost on the old bricks provided no resistance to the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel out back. By the time I realized what was happening and reacted, the rear end was chasing the front. All my wintertime Corvair-drifting experience finally paid off.
I had always wanted to drive a bus, and I had started preparing early. Aged five, my favorite toy was a highly-detailed toy bus. I would lie on the floor for hours, gazing through the windows and sunroof, imagining all my (future) passengers and the adventures I would take them on and slinging them around sideways on the polished hardwood floor.
In Austria then, the legendary yellow and black Steyr 380 Post-buses were the vital transport link between the villages clinging to the Alpine mountainsides. They were rounded, with a graceful hood out front. The versions that served the really scenic routes had lots of glass, curving right up into the roof, which had a giant fabric sunroof. On sunny days, the driver rolled it back like sardine can lid, revealing the Alpine scenery in its full splendor.
It’s one of my most joyful childhood memories: sitting on a tan leather seat right behind the driver, watching him shift the gears and navigate the throbbing 85 hp Steyr diesel through the blind hair-pin curves, announcing his presence (and right of way) with the iconic four-tone melodic horn: taatooo-taataaa, which mimicked the old hand-blown horns that announced postal carriages of yore.
One day in the fall of 1975, I woke up and decided to fulfill my childhood dream– even if there were no alpine hairpin curves in Iowa City. I got the job though my usual technique: pestering. I showed up at the transit company’s office practically every other day. Within three weeks, I was behind the wheel.
I’d driven big trucks, but piloting my first bus felt a bit strange the first time out on a training run. I sat right up against the giant bulging front window of a GMC “new look” bus. It was like staring out a living-room picture window of a mobile home. The only major surprise: the steering was unassisted and, therefore, profoundly slow, as I learned that hair-raising morning.
Iowa City Transit was a very efficient and heavily-used transit system, especially for such a small city. But that was only after it became a publicly-owned system and bought twelve new GM buses in 1971. Prior to that, it had been a typical private system that had been in decline since the forties, and was dependent on a subsidy to keep bumping along.
It had an elderly fleet of GM buses like this one, a TGH3101. It looks just like the bigger GM transit buses, but these were designed for less-intense use in smaller towns, and had a 270 inch GMC truck six cylinder gasoline engine and Hydramatic transmission (instead of the DD diesel and Allison V-Drive). We used to ride them into downtown on Saturday mornings when we were too lazy to walk or ride our bikes, and I vividly remember the jerky shifts that came so quickly one after the next and the relatively quiet and smoothly purring gas engine.
After the federal government created the Urban Mass Transit Authority (UMTA), grants were available to public entities to purchase new equipment with which to relaunch and expand bus transit services. One day in 1971, I suddenly heard the distinctive loud bellowing of Detroit Diesel engines bouncing off the walls downtown, disturbing the quiet summer morning in Iowa City. A few minutes later, I saw the first of a fleet of new red buses being tried out. A seed was planted.
There were twelve shiny new 35′ GM T6H4521A buses, serving twelve routes that covered the city very effectively. They all converged at this downtown corner of Clinton and Washington street every half hour, for transfers. Iowa City Transit had one of the highest passenger-per-mile utilization rates in the country; the buses during rush hour were always standing room only, sometimes so utterly so that folks were crammed in right around me at the front, especially those routes heading to the University and the UI Medical center.
In 1974, the year before I drove for them, the system bought two new GM T8H5307A buses (No. 13 & 14), which were the full forty foot in length and 102″ wide. They could only be used on certain high capacity routes, being too big for the older residential area corners. They also had one very nice touch: a throttle pedal operated by the bus’ high pressure air system; shall we call it “power accelerator pedal” or “drive by air”? The mechanical linkages on the other buses had lots of friction, and were hard on the knees, especially since full throttle was SOP until the bus got up to speed. Still had manual steering, though. That kept our upper-bodies well worked, especially if one hustled through corners.
thanks to the internet, I’m reunited with the very buses I once drove…good old #6, one of my regulars
Yes,I took my schedule very seriously. I treated bus-driving as a time-trial rally and drove…briskly; which resulted in one or two complaints from old ladies. You do want to get to the mall exactly at 10:47, don’t you?
But as a bus driver in a university town, I generally got few complaints. Some of my youthful passengers actually egged me on. There’s nothing like a little group-hooning to evoke a little winter-morning cheer before classes.
During a particularly heavy snow-storm, I drove like a fiend to stay on schedule. My passengers were not going to get home late. I eventually caught up with the bus that was supposed to be twenty minutes ahead of me. As I passed my less committed colleague, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the back of the bus.
Tooling around town in the bus was generally a relaxed affair, with a few notable exceptions. I was relief-driving, and momentarily forgot which route I was on that day, and started heading the wrong way. Rather than finding a suitably enormous space in which to turn the big bus around, or make a lengthy detour, I took a direct shortcut through a several-block-long weedy lot. It turned out to be much rougher than I’d expected.
The old ladies heading to the mall were flabbergasted (and jostled) by our little off-road busing adventure. Worse, the bus almost bogged down in the the uneven surface. If I had gotten stuck, I would have been on the news that evening. And out of a job. Or maybe not. It was a pretty relaxed operation then; no uniforms even. Got to know the regulars, and would stop in front of their houses.
Another time, the bus’ long throttle linkage suddenly stuck wide open – exactly the block that ended in the high school parking lot on the one Saturday of the year of the school’s annual carnival fund-raiser. It was another one of those “this can’t be real; someone working on a bad Hollywood movie script must have written this moment.” Of course, I knew exactly what to do: turn the engine switch to “Off”; bring it to a stop, and go knock on a door to ask to use their phone. At least my steering wheel never came off. Do you ever have dreams about that happening? I do. It’s why I always carry vise-grips on me. I’m guessing this guy has power steering on his bus.
There were other adrenaline-inducing moments: nothing like sliding down a hill and across an intersection in a full bus, front wheels locked and surfing on a mat of wet, greasy leaves. And plenty of other snow and ice follies that winter; some innocent; others not so much.
But spring arrived, and wanderlust struck again. I had been doing this for several months now, some kind of record for me. But I knew it had to end, somehow. One morning, heading to an office park out by I-80, I was ready to make my breakout. So I made an announcement to my passengers that the bus had been hijacked to California. Some chuckled. One or two cheered me on, shouting “do it.”
But a glance in the mirror showed that there were plenty of icy stares. Sensing a collective failure of enthusiasm, I reluctantly abandoned my plan, and drove them to their waiting cubicles. Geez; you folks have no sense of adventure…”honey, you’ll never guess what happened on the way to work this morning…I won’t be coming home tonight…I’ll be back in a few weeks….I’m having a great time…tell the kids I love them..”
If I couldn’t drive a bus with forty passengers to California, I did the next best thing: I quit, and bought my own little private bus, a somewhat-battered 1968 Dodge A100 van ( I know, it really should have been a Greenbrier, which even looks like its bigger GM brothers, but I was in a hurry). I paneled the inside with birch plywood, built a bed in the back and cut in some sliding windows. Only one passenger signed-on for the one-way trip to sunny California. But she had plenty of enthusiasm; even made the curtains for it. That was fare enough.
Great stories which I cannot begin to top. My hours in these buses were spent in the back seats. The fare was 35 cents, as I recall. These rides were during the time between turning 16 and when I finally was allowed to buy a car. The bus route ran on the street behind ours and was my mode of transit downtown to my job. It was always a thrill when the thing finally got up enough speed to shift into second gear.
The sounds remain down deep in my head to this day. But i don’t think that I have ridden a transit bus since buying my first car in February, 1977.
That Captures my Memory of These NJ transit buses I rode to HS, seafoam green , 35cents…and the upshift Glide, The Sounds so freh in my head, and The Joy Of Pulling The Buzzer…finally at your stop.
I remember riding MARTA growing up in Decatur, GA (part of metro Atlanta), especially before the trains were built and it was all buses. MARTA inherited many of the shorter GM fishbowl buses with the 6 cylinders from ATA, the Atlanta Transit Authory. Those shorter buses had an exhaust smell quite similar to a butane lighter. I only felt one step down on those transmissions, so they had two speeds I’m guessing. The longer fishbowls with 8 cylinders hit the streets in the early 70s after MARTA took over, and smelled more like traditional diesel exhaust. Those had two step downs, so three speeds(?). Paul, you would know more about this.
The fares (heavily subsidized) were 15 cents. When it went up to 25 cents in 1978, we were aghast! As a kid, I would sit up front, if I could, in the right seat and watch the driver. I never drove one, but thought it would be fun.
You drove a Fishbowl! How cool is that!
To me, the GM New Looks are what buses should be, and all others pale in comparison.
Where and when I grew up, the town had a fleet of Fishbowls (and a fleet of AM General buses, which were locally made). Here’s my story of getting to know one driver, who stopped in front of his house early one morning to show me his Model A.
Very cool story there Jim on that old bus you rode.
As a maintenance employee here in Vancouver BC I can tell you about doing 360’s in the bus yard….Get the old GM going a good clip and crank the wheel slightly and then hit the rear door interlock which hits the brakes on the rear duals and hold on, quite scary when you look in the inside rear view while doing this. Just make sure the yard is clear and covered in snow or wet and oily. Lots of fun!! I came down a steep hill once in a snow storm very slowly but totally out of control using brakes and door interlock and decided the only way to stop was to run it into a row of parked cars but luck was on my side when I hit a salted patch and stopped…my heart was pounding as it was terrifying!!
Ive never been keen on arguementative freight so I havent got a passenger service licence, the only bus I have any wheel time on was a work bus for a council gang the vehicle in question had begun life as a schoolbus it had been a TJ Bedford when it left the factory rebodied for the Education department stone simple 300 cube petrol engine 4 speed manual but it used to go some very interesting and unusual places.
paul have a look at the austin rover web site they have a great piece on the layland national britans first futuristic modular bus..it didnt quite hit the mark despite all the fanfare also look at the 70s damiler dms and leyland atlantean was the gm bus rear engined or underfloor
My bus-riding experience in the USA is mostly limited to my school’s parking lot shuttle bus, which happens to be a GM fishbowl. The distinctive noise of its V-series engine is lovely, I had no idea back then that it was a 2-stroke diesel! No wonder it sounded like no other diesel engine I’ve heard. Do none of these things have power steering? The bus is driven by an old guy, he never seem to have any trouble turning the wheel. If the bus really had manual steering, that guy must be a hella lot stronger than I thought!
I drove the bus in college – about half of our drivers were students, and a solid number of the other half used to be students but decided to stay on when/if they finished/stopped classes.
This was back in 2003-2005! The last of the “new look” GM’s had been sold at the surplus auction a decade before. The oldest thing we consistently drove were the late 1980’s Orions – I loved their shape and simplicity… and they were a dream to drive compared with the much-more-recent Thomas buses that made up the staple of the fleet when I started. Those things were awful to drive – the air seats would bounce you all over the place, and the transmissions (all automatic, manual transit busses passed away before my time) would shudder and jerk and drop into gear with all the subtlety of a kick in the pants.
The established “lifer” drivers all got the newest Gillig Phantoms, except for the real old guys who didn’t want to give up “thier” bus – well, just the one, and he’d chosen to keep the Orion that had served him well over the years.
I also have lots of stories of hijinks trying to get back on route, sliding in the snow, etc – it was college after all, and the University decided to gift us with these wonderful toys!
I think that by now the entire fleet are the smooth, new, cold-air-conditioned Gilligs, the Thomases were going before the Orions but both were on their last few years of service in 2005.
Bus shows up around 2:30. No chains! That’s Seattle for you ;->
I remember that storm well, I’d come home from work in Bellevue via I-90 in my then 2WD Ford Ranger, all season tires, getting off at Rainier Ave S, heading up Boren to Broadway, to Pike St, to Melrose to get home, nodda a problem along the way, slow driving and I live just north of Denny Way by 2 blocks on Melrose and Thomas Sts.
It was that very location that 2 coach buses from Wenatchee almost went off onto I-5 below in 2008.
Paul, thanks so much for sharing those priceless memories. Such fun to read!
Its a bit of a shame that GM let their hold on the Bus market go. GM’s bus swan song wasn’t the thing legends are made of.
By time I was riding busses they were all Orions in the ‘burbs. They were nice but the CTA’s “New Look” rigs looked and sounded cooler.
In spite of being raised a Cornbinder guy I’ve always been a bit of a Detroit “drive it like you’re angry” Diesel nut.
Never got to ride these old GMC buses that I recall, though I might’ve through Pierce Transit briefly as i think they still had them in service in the late 70’s when I began to ride the buses in Tacoma.
When I did begin to ride Metro Transit buses in the late early Aughts, the GMC’s had long gone out of service and Metro was just a year or two from retiring the old AM General buses that they bought in ’79 and many of those were electric and I think a bunch were articulated too IIRC.
Some of the motors were pulled at the time of retirement and rebuilt with new electronics and installed in new electric trolleys that came on line in ’02 and I think still serve the system on many routes to this day.
But a scary story on buses were 2 coach buses rented for a trip to Seattle from Moses Lake with students heading home for the holidays from the Piece Corps, east of the mountains back in the big snow of 2008 and made such blunder headed decisions and almost cost themselves their lives and the lives of the young passengers, all while trying to get to the Greyhound buss depot in the Denny Regrade by getting off at the usual Olive Street exit during that big snow.
The normal route was to get off at Olive, drive up Olive to Bellevue Ave E, turn left, go to Denny Way and down to Stewart St to the depot, but when it snows, Denny way is closed due to the steepness of the hill, and the interstate overpass, which which freezes up in these conditions and almost impossible to plow and keep clear so it’s just easier to close it.
The drivers never once, I don’t think contacted Greyhound for instructions to an alternative route and ended up on Bellevue Way, realized it was not wise to go down Denny Way (wise decision) but ended up going down Thomas St, a small residential street that dead ends at Melrose, which is the last street before at least a 30Ft drop to I-5 below and Thomas is cobble stoned and they slid down and almost went over the edge. My apartment was literally on the corner, but thankfully, I was at work when it happened but DID see the raw footage online a friend alerted me to from KING5.
When I got home at 6pm, they were still trying to get the second bus pulled to safety – all passengers were rescued thankfully.
Interesting to see those vintage IC buses, not much has changed in those shots. In 2008 my cousin got married in the church in the photo with bus #13. The old UI business admin building is still there too.
This is really cool. I drove Cambus and Iowa City Transit for 5 years while going to school.
I have bus envy! Some of my fondest memories we looking forward to going to the Big City (where Grandma lived) and to ride the bus (usually a TGH3101). To this day being a bus driver is on my bucket list…..
Wow! This is so cool. I lived in Iowa City from 1977-87. I drove at both Cambus and ICT. #s 13 and 14 were the hotrods of the fleet with that big 8V-71 in the engine bay. #19, which was an early 35′ “New Look” that had been refurbished, was quick for some reason too.
Hi Paul. Missed you by a couple years at Iowa City Transit. Hired Nov 15, 1977. Retired 22 years later, in 2000. I have a photo of all the women bus drivers. There were only 10 back then. I have written Transit tales as well
Hi Wetherill. Sorry to have missed you; California called! 🙂
There were only one or possibly two women when I was there. A number of the old timers from the previous private transit company were still driving; I remembered some of them from my childhood. And of course there were some newer, younger drivers. One young woman got hired the same time I did. But I’m not surprised more came aboard soon after.
When I first went to ISU in Ames in 2007 they were still using some clapped-out New Look buses for their high volume circulator routes. They really made a racket going over bumps in the road, everything was banging around – you really had to talk to have a conversation on them.
Enjoyed reading this. Reminded me of when a fellow we named “Wild Bill” drove the Blue Bird school bus that picked up us students at the subway station and drove us to school, about 15 miles away. The more snow on the road encouraged Bill even more to hit his scheduled arrival time.
The bus was usually full, and in the middle of winter, we usually had this guy who would sit in the back and open his window all the way. The resulting ingress of freezing cold wind would circulate all through the interior, causing no end of discomfort to us all. We called him Fresh Air Freak.
Wow. This story gave me retro-chills. I had a crazy spin on the first day of driving a beat-up 1966 International Lodestar 1600 box truck for my Dad’s golfing buddy’s fruit juice distribution biz. On a rain-slicked Route 128 in the near suburbs of Boston, I hit the air brakes as if driving a car, and spun the rattle trap in bumper-to-bumper traffic at a lane jog in a work zone. I well remember seeing the same brown Coupe de Ville twice as I went around. My Dad’s friend was along for the ride to break me in, and must have found himself in a pickle. Instead of firing me on the spot, he lauded me for recovering– although all I really did was wait it out, terrified.
The air tanks on that truck needed constant condensation purging in hot weather, and it was not difficult to run the system out of assist, enlivening 6 tons of rolling cranberry juice cocktails. Route 20 near Worcester, MA was an undulating two lane in rolling hills, and I ran the IH out of assist on a long, deep downhill with a traffic light placed inconveniently at the bottom. There was only one thing that saved the guy in the stopped car from a life altering ( or ending) experience– the truck’s rickety parking brake stopped it inches short of disaster.
Then, there was the time I ripped a rear door off the box and my hand truck disappeared through the gaping hole, somewhere on the highway…